Alias Grace is a 6-episode Netflix series based on Margaret Atwood’s book of the same name. (She’s also the author of the book and series, The Handmaid’s Tale.) I’ve seen many people rave about the show on social media–it is a great thriller–but my quilting friends seem to love it the most. And no wonder–quilts, quilting, and quilt patterns play powerful metaphorical and symbolic roles in the plot. I loved it too.
Grace is an Irish immigrant to Canada who has been convicted of the murder of her employer and his housekeeper/lover. Over the course of 15 years Grace has gone from torture in an asylum and isolation in a prison, to unpaid servant/sideshow attraction in the home of the prison’s Governor. She does, however, have a group of advocates who believe in her victimhood at least, and her innocence at best. This group engages the services of a psychiatrist, Dr. Jordan, to interview Grace to assess her mental health and uncover her forgotten memories of the murder. The interviews between the doctor and Grace take place in the home of the Governor.
Throughout each meeting between Grace and Dr. Jordan, Grace is hand piecing quilt blocks. During their first meeting, Jordan asks her about the quilt she is making.
“It’s for Lydia, the Governor’s daughter. It’s a log cabin quilt. Every young woman should have one before marriage. It means the home and at the center there’s always a red square, which means the hearth fire.”
Click here to see variations of log cabin quilts on the Quilt Index.
During the same session, Grace goes on to say about quilts, “There are three every woman should make with her own hand before marriage: The Tree of Paradise, the Flower Basket, and the Pandora’s Box.”
On the foreground line, with the rose background, is a quilt that is similar to a few traditional Pandora’s Box quilts, but is actually a Bowtie quilt. It’s interesting to note that Pandora’s Box in some quilt reference books, as well as the chapter illustration in the book, looks like what is popularly referred to now as Tumbling Blocks. The quilt on the front line in the center is, I believe a Variable Star, on point. (Comment, please, if I’m wrong.)
Grace continues to discuss quilts with Dr. Jordan, saying,
Sometimes, in my days as a maid, I would hang them up to dry, all in a row. They’d look like flags hung out by an army as it goes to war….Why is it that women have chosen to sew such flags and lay them on the tops of beds? For they make the bed the most noticeable thing in a room. And then I thought, it’s for a warning…There are many dangerous things that may take place in a bed. It’s where we are born, that’s our first peril in life. It’s where women give birth, which is often their last. And it’s where the act takes place between men and women.
During this revelation, we see flashbacks of Grace and her friend, Mary, making bed after bed with a variety of quilts.
A full size version of the Tree of Paradise.
At the end of the series, we see Grace in her home, working on a quilt of her own. She says,
Although I have made many quilts in my day, I am finally making one for myself. The pattern of this quilt is called The Tree of Paradise and I am changing it a little to suit my own ideas. On my Tree of Paradise I intend to put a border of snakes. Without a snake or two, the main part of the story would be missing. The Tree itself is in triangle of two colors, dark for the leaves and a lighter color for the fruits.
She goes on to explain that she is using three fabrics from significant episodes in her life.
In the end, Grace steps back to look at her quilt, a beautiful version of the Tree of Life. The snakes are a powerful addition, in my opinion.
IMBD credits the Ontario-based quilters:
Eileen Fennel: Master Quilter
Alicia Langill: Assistant Quilter
Kathy Langill: Key Quilt Master
I’ve rounded up some tutorials from respected sources. If you know of other great tutorials for these blocks, or have ever seen a tutorial for the super-size Tree of Paradise quilt, please leave the links or book recommendations in the comments.
Log Cabin Block tutorial via The Spruce
(Want to try the block without the commitment to a quilt? How about a log cabin ornament?)
Tree of Paradise video tutorial via Fat Quarter Shop
Bowtie Block video tutorial via Missouri Star Quilt Co.
Economy Block tutorial via Red Pepper Quilts
Economy Block via Mack and Mabel
Flower Basket Block tutorial via The Spruce
Variable Star Block tutorial via Alanda Craft
In the book, each chapter is named after a different quilt block. I thought this analysis from Super Summary was interesting:
Symbolically, the structure of the novel mirrors a quilt: both the characters within the novel and the reader must put together a whole out of separate pieces of cloth. This patchwork method of constructing a narrative, a novel, or the “truth” becomes the central unifying motif in the novel.
What did you think of the series or the book? What did you think of the quilts? Are you inspired to try any of them? Alias Grace quilt-along, anyone? Comment below with your thoughts, recommendations, or corrections.